I need help with my son who is defiant, rude and out of control. Everything is a problem, he won’t do anything I ask and fights every request with a lot of strong push back. The defiant outbursts are affecting everyone in the family and I have had enough. Whether it’s doing his chores or basic things like having a shower, we get constant back chat. He acts like it is the end of the world to do anything. What can we do to get him to do what he needs to without having WWIII?

This is a familiar situation and it’s hard work for everyone. The first place to start is to say that what is happening is all about emotion. It would be very easy to assume that our child is doing this on purpose in a calculated way or to label him as difficult or stubborn. As the parent who is responsible for making sure our child develops into a flexible and understanding person we can feel really annoyed that our child is behaving this way. We may even worry that our child is never going to get along with others, that they won’t be accepted by people. All in all it can feel like we have failed to bring him up properly.

What I am going to encourage anyone in this position to do is to step back and look at what is going on in the round. Instead of judging ourselves and our child we need to look at the bigger picture and see it for what it truly is. The emotion our child is having is responsible for the outburst and it is his emotion which needs to be understood and accepted to help make things better.

It’s no good working on a solution to the problem at the point when the back chat happens. We might like to think we can teach our child to stop being that way but usually it just makes things worse.

The reason we won’t be effective at solving the problem is that the child is not able to receive this information. The defiant behaviour is like a reflex action. He is in a habit. He can’t listen or be reasonable or ask for time to do what is needed. Emotion is telling him that the only way to respond is to reject the reasonable request. Rudely.

He’s having an emotion and it’s not bad

When we see this pattern of defiant behaviour we can also call it reactive behaviour. It’s a pattern and can be linked to the child’s temperament and the way we have reacted to it in the past. Instead of blaming ourselves or feeling awful that we are in the situation we have a choice to look at it and read the message being sent. There is a clear message that is being sent her. It’s not about being defiant even if that’s how it feels to us.

It’s a kids who has not mastered the ability to manage feelings yet.

I want to do what I want to do when I want it.

Let’s look at that statement and think. Is it bad for him to feel that way?

Quite often when I am doing mundane and boring tasks I feel exactly like this. I don’t let it all hang out because I am an adult, but I definitely feel like this sometimes. Even though we can read the words that there are good reasons why our child is behaving poorly we can really struggle to connect with that emotion our child is having. Mostly we feel they are wrong for having the feeling. Parents say it like this “I just feel like my child should be able to do better.”

Is our expectation realistic for our child with his immature and less flexible brain?

As an adult with my adult brain I have flexibility and maturity. I have learned to dampen down an outburst, even though I feel like letting it all hang out. Well, I can do it most of the time. Ok – honestly I can’t do it some of the time. Our kids on the other hand have an immature brain and the pre-frontal cortex, where all good decisions are made, won’t be online for a couple of decades. So our expectation that he should be able to do what we want when we want him to are in reality, unrealistic.

I’m going to go a even further here to say that we need to let go of the unrealistic expectations we might have but we also need to see the outburst as a gift that gives you an insight into what it going on with our particular child. Kids are living with a brain that is immature. It’s not able to help them be where they need to be.

Let’s grateful for the outburst as it’s giving you information about the things our child needs

This is going to sound so different to the classic parental response that you might not want to keep reading but bear with me. When we believe our child is difficult and doing things on purpose it’s a struggle to feel like we want to help them with what is going on.

When we use our perspective taking skills we can turn it around and see what’s underneath the behaviour. Kids tell us what they need by using the behaviour when they can’t say what the problem is. The problem is a lack of flexible thinking skills. There are no thinking skills going on in the moment. Our child is reactive when they are full of emotion. They can’t listen or be reasonable or ask for time to do what is needed. The only way to respond is to reject their quite reasonable request.

So this tells us that our child needs a lot of practice in understanding their feelings, becoming more emotionally literate and in managing them. We can then get started on ways to help with this. Emotional self-regulation is a specific area to help build capacity for all our kids and parents model how to do this when we manage conflict.

If you have this pattern of a child lashing out or having an outburst which is repeating over and over again then there is a lot to be done to help.

It starts with understanding that we need to strengthen the bond we have with kids and to become more emotionally connected. So instead of reading the signals as being sign that we need to impose a stronger punishment or another consequence you have a chance to strengthen the bond.

Apart from learning how to help kids be emotionally resilient we can find other ways to keep connected. So what is it that will help you to be more connected in the moment? Over time we can keep building the bond by being aware of the power of connecting to each of our children as individuals. For some kids this is roughhousing. Maybe it is cuddles, maybe it is foot rubs, maybe it is walking around the block, or maybe it is reading together.

Whatever you to to keep connected we can always find ways, all day every day is to  continuously reach out to them with love, especially when it would be tempting to see them as being defiant. Take that moment to break the pattern and think how do they feel, what’s it like for them and how can I help them with that. We’re the ones with the flexible brains who can keep the communication channels open.

2 thoughts on “Defiant boy

  1. Hi Justine. Thank you for your article. I found it very helpful with my 14 year old daughter. You may like to change the spelling of the word bong to bond in your article. I am a stickler for spelling.

    1. Hi there Tanya, it’s so good to hear from you and that this article which is aimed at a defiant boy applies just as much to our girls. We all experience the full range of emotions! It’s so easy to frame a natural thing like our feelings as something that is troubling or annoying. I am glad you read this and hope you agree that there is no wrong or right way to feel and and that everyone deserves unconditional love and respect.

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